A JOURNEY TO THE WINDWARD ISLANDS
A JOURNEY TO THE WINDWARD ISLANDS IN 1916.
By; Will Johnson
The ‘Amigoe’ newspaper on Curacao was started in 1884 and was owned by the Roman Catholic Church for over one hundred years.
On Tuesday December 28th, 1915 Father R.J.C.Wahlen, ‘Amgoe’ Editor and as Secretary accompanying Bishop Msgr. M.G. Vulysteke and Frater Radulphus (Inspector of Education) left Curacao on the Saban schooner the ‘Estelle’. There were 18 passengers on board, listed as first class, and the Captain was Donald Vanterpool of Saba nephew of the owner Capt. Thomas Charles Vanterpool.
There were also six Nuns on board. The Estelle went first to Bonaire after which left on December 29th and headed North in the direction of Puerto Rico. The journey which ended in St. Martin took all of 12 days. They returned to Curacao and arrived there on February 18th, 1916. Father Wahlen describes the trip in a column entitled ‘De Bovenwindsche Stemmen’ or (Windward Voices).
On Thursday afternoon, December 30th the weather turned foul and Father Wahlen describes his admiration for the Saban seamen as follows:
‘I can understand that a coachman talks to his horses; those animals know his voice and feels perhaps what he wants.
But the Saban speaks with the sea and with the wind. He bars the waves from his ship, calming them with whispering sounds, and calls the wind in his sails with soft whispers. Sea and wind live for him, he knows them through and through, and knows what he can expect from them. His sharp eyesight notices danger even if that lies buried deeply under the friendly ripple of the water or in the quiet rest of the calmness. One can never trust the wind or the sea that is his life’s principle. Above on the deck we had enjoyed the majesty of the boisterous waves and had seen the Saban, Lord and King, of creation with a single wave of the hand dominate the roughest seas.
He goes on to describe the trip and passing Puerto Rico and a stop at St. Thomas. I am busy translating the entire article but for this one I will start off from when the ‘Estelle’ left St. Thomas.
‘Friday morning, January 7th, the sails were raised and we departed St. Thomas. When sailing out of the harbor we passed close to the quarantine station, at the end of the bay, situated on top of a small hill. It looked lovely and friendly, a pretty summer house with a cool verandah and a nice little garden around it.
St. Thomas is known also here as an island for tourists on a short visit.
The ‘Estelle’ moved forward lovely and close to shore. Then between the crevices and gullies between the hills one could see a single road leading to a country house or plantation. We saw a small field with regal plants, but for the greater part the hills were covered with trees, but not farmed. From my observation I estimated that only ten percent of the land was used for agriculture.
That same impression of sailing past dead and uncultivated regions remains with us as we sailed past St. John and the numerous Virgin Islands. To avoid the reefs during the night the Captain took a more Easterly course to ‘Sombrero’ where there is a safe passage. From Sombrero we would tack to St. Martin or St. Eustatius depending on which wind would be the most favorable.
What a happy surprise on Saturday January 8th. In the early morning hours the Saban young man at the wheel had already discovered his cone shaped mountain. In a jiffy we were on deck and we saw only a black cloud.
Yes, for sure that was Saba, we were assured! Exactly that black cloud was the proof. No other island around here could form such a high and dark background on the horizon. That had to be Saba!
Saba the rock!
At last then, I would be able to behold that mountain, described by all who visited it as renowned for its struggles. Saba, a fruitful land for travel stories, where the fairy tale world is resurrected not in midgets, but in giants and strong robust people.
The dull grey curtain remained closed for a long time and hid the highly anticipated scene.
The sun came up; the golden glow coloured the edges of the clouds, the light came through, tearing its shroud. Saba the rock, beamed in morning luxury before our inquisitive glances.
What a baffling disillusionment! What a battle between imagination and reality!
Is that really Saba?
But that mountain is not that high, and do you think that is so steep? Wait until you have to climb it. I looked glum. So very different I had imagined this rock cone rising out of the sea.
I retreated from my mood and only then noticed the great joy of the Sabans who were in their element, because that mountain was theirs.
My bitter arrows I shot off at their sparkling eyes; that megalomania was lost on me. I had imagined Saba to be much larger. Deceit! Hallucination! It was absolutely nothing special I had seen many higher mountains in my lifetime.
The Saban at the wheel could not accept this. Proudly he rose up to defend his father mountain. The priest should have patience for about six hours or so until we in our nutshell would be lying under the mountain; only then would the majesty of its height become apparent. At the moment the rock is sunk too much behind the horizon; its steep incline cannot even be seen at the moment. The young man was right of course! Slowly but surely the giant awakened and rose higher and higher out of the water. The rock became wider and extended out on the front forming a figure like a sleeping sphynx, and resting on a basalt rock.
Saba became beautiful. Life appeared on it and it became picturesque. The rock began to turn green and opened its creases and grooves, where when it rained hard the water streamed through down to the sea. The top of the crater stuck out above the gossamer misty cloud, in light blue veils, being blown in the distance. How did the peaks of rocks around the mountain prick up at various heights between the luxuriant green. Ha! There the houses are becoming visible, the houses of Saba, so small and so clean. How beautiful was the roof tile red on such an enchanting rock in the sea. The white walls appear so clearly and seem to give you the dimensions clearly. Lovely, small, friendly houses! And how nicely Hell’s Gate was situated. We counted more than thirty doll-houses on the upper edge of the softly glowing slope, the only place on Saba free of any boulders and which descends uninterrupted as a magnificent green meadow.
We could not see anything of The Bottom, and only a small section of the Quarter. We had passed Saba and went in the direction of St. Eustatius. We would first land there and remain for a few hours and in the evening depart for St. Martin. The end of our long journey was at hand. We felt a great relief while we sailed between the three Windward Islands.
St. Eustatius was in line with Saba somewhat to the West and St. Martin was once again askew opposite Saba, but was much farther than St. Eustatius. This last island gave us a reverse perception. We did not have great expectations, but when we passed the height of Tumble-Down-Dick we nearly reached a stage of rapture over Statia’s enchanting appearance. The crater there is still wholly intact and one is amazed at its colossal dimensions. We formerly though of a volcano as a funnel with a narrow opening turned to the top. But it is quite the reverse. Fire spouting mountains don’t spit, but vomit waves of glowing lava, mud and rocks; the mouth of the crater remains through all of this broad and wide open. The edges of the rims of the mouth of the Statia crater are beautifully covered with foliage on the interior as well as on the exterior. The oval opening has a higher rim, so that you can see the mouth completely open before you. From the mouth of the crater all the way to Oranjestad the mountain slopes gradually descends and forms a delightful fruitful terrain fertilized with lava. The elevation of Tumble-Down-Dick is as the congelation of a stream of lava. The entire island is like a saddle seat between these two heights; the town is situated on the lower edge along the sea. Divided into different squares of different tints gives St. Eustatius immediately the impression of being a cultivated piece of land, a well cultivated island, with staple crops for its inhabitants. What a difference with our barren Leeward Islands!
The white house of Mr. Wilde reminds you of the large business on this island. Of the town self-there was very little to be seen. The fort, a ruin of a Synagogue and some houses on the one side, and opposite that the Roman Catholic Church, the school and the small house of the nuns, with a ruin of a large house next to it, that was all.
But what did we see there? One of the wonders of the world, famous in our colony as no other, the pier of St. Eustatius. To its honour we must mention that this time it was properly with its feet in the water and we had the good fortune to land there in a proper manner. But we used all our power of persuasion with oarsman Mr. Richardson, who would have preferred throwing us on shore with his derelict leaky boat. But that we did not experience. We wanted to land on the pier, and we did that. On St. Eustatius it is Orange on top and below the ‘City of Ruins.’
A narrow street of more than a kilometer walk stretches out along the sea. On the one side of the street the ruins are partly in the water, on the other side nearly perpendicular against the cliff. The gray ash colour of the tuff, in thin layers heaped on top of other forms, the perfect background for this dead city. The luxuriant nature of Statia’s rock close off the more protruding pen valley the basin of the former village, on both sides, with lovely cool trees; further on tall manchineel trees hide the cliff from view and allow you to walk in a beautiful avenue full of cool shadows; the old Bay Path. That is on your left hand when you are standing on the pier, which forms the central point of the beach between the ruins on the seaside and the cultivated openings, filled with sugar cane, alongside the mountain.
The first sight of St. Eustatius is lovely, and highly interesting because of the centuries old history, hidden between the whimsically lumps of rocks and detached walls. Trees are being felled with the intention of tearing down the ruins and creating a coconut plantation there. For some this seems like a great idea. Pull out of the ground all that is possible, but spare the ruins. There are walls high and long, which make it easy, in your imagination to rebuild the giant warehouses which it was in former times. We would find it regrettable, if such historical monuments were pulled down. The meaning of St. Eustatius would be lost by that. At the present time no money can be spent to save with respect those old fragments from the former glory period, but that at least care will be taken not to destroy them unnecessarily. What would require recommending? Once again repairing those uninhabited dwellings on the beach. The rock walls are still standing in good condition, but the wooden balcony lost its floors and the roof is full of holes. That gives a very wrong impression of neglect. Luckily the Government of St. Eustatius has repaired some of those houses and even put them in use as depositories for cotton and machinery. Because of this slowly St. Eustatius has lost the somber appearance of lost glory
The trip to the Upper Town was not easy. It was four o’clock in the afternoon and rather hot. The new Bay Path is passable but if it was a few degrees steeper one would fall off it. When one walks in a zig zag fashion one can climb it, but with very much effort. How high is the cliff? I do not know but it must be around 80 meters. There we stood suddenly in front of the new church built by Father Delgeur and now served by Father Hagemans. The church is nicely situated there and is a real ornament for the town. Jan Paul has honour for his foundations. His thirteen year tenure on the ‘Golden Rock’ was immortalized through this. The solid building will survive for a long time.
We went through the garden to the presbytery. That garden is real, no places with cisterns and pots, but a lovely plot of land with a grass field, shrubs, bushes, trees, flowerbeds and rose beds. Everything in the cold ground, with a view of the sea is enchanting.
When you look below, you get somewhat frightened, that a path of hardly one meter wide remains between the convent and the edge of the abyss. The steep chasm opens up so close to your feet as if under under your eyes, you start to get dizzy. Exceptionally, exceptionally lovely is the sea-scape with the rock of Saba in the background. Coming from the Leeward Islands you don’t find anything more impressive as the great difference in vegetation there and on St. Eustatius. The presbytery has a large field of grass before the door and a lovely avenue of coconut trees.
When one looks into the gradation the palms are waving at you from everywhere. Around every house it is as green as if Oranjestad was one large garden with many pavilions for the residents. Behind the house there is again a nice piece of land and cornfield and as far as one can see against the mountain, sugar cane or sweet potatoes planted. Now that the land is considerably cultivated there should be no poverty on St.Eustatius. The people have abundant food to eat, something which cannot always be said of other islands in the colony.
In the evening at 8 pm we stumbled down the Bay Path behind a boy armed with a lantern. On the beach the men were ready to push the boat into the sea. With one voice they declared that it would be too dangerous to lay against the pier with the boat. The sea was too high and the boat would be destroyed. There was little to be brought in against this argument, so that we climbed in the boat on the beach and allowed ourselves to be carried out in an outgoing wave.
The ‘Estelle’ already had her sails up and pulled up anchor as soon as we were on board. With courage we started our last night on board.
To be continued:
Translation by Will Johnson
This article is only part of a long translation I am working on. It will be interesting to read the continuation especially his views on St. Martin as it was in 1916.